So we’re in the month of the Midwinter Festival, the winter solstice, the turning point of the year when the dark days gradually become longer heralding the return of spring. It has always been a time for feasting and celebration, even before the Christian Church appropriated it as the birth of Christ. In fact, many of the Christmas customs, lore, symbols, and rituals are actually associated with Winter Solstice celebrations of ancient Pagan cultures.
However, there are more recent symbols that have come to be associated with Christmas. The Christmas tree, of course, along with Santa, Robins, Stagecoaches, Snowmen and… Reindeer, especially Rudolph with his red nose.
But in real life Rudolph is under threat.
Reindeer (known as Caribou in North America) are native to many northern areas: Norway, Finland, Russia, the northern reaches of Mongolia, and North America from Alaska to Greenland.
Many populations have shrunk rapidly in recent decades and globally reindeer are a threatened species, according to a 2016 assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Some reindeer herds are sedentary, others are migratory. The Taimyr herd of migrating Siberian tundra reindeer in Russia is the largest wild reindeer herd in the world, varying between 400,000 and 1,000,000 animals. What was once the second largest herd is the migratory caribou George River herd in Canada. Once very numerous, as of January 2018, there are fewer than 9,000 animals estimated to be left in this herd. In April 2018 the New York Times reported the disappearance of the only herd of southern mountain caribou with an expert calling it ‘functionally extinct’ after the herd’s size dwindled to a mere three animals.
Arctic peoples, such as the Caribou Inuit, have always depended on reindeer and caribou for food, clothing, and shelter. The Sami people – also known as the Lapps from northern Norway and Finland – have depended on reindeer herding and fishing for centuries.
Although native to the northern Arctic regions there is a small population of reindeer in the southern hemisphere. These reindeer were introduced to the island of South Georgia by Norwegian whalers in the early 20th century to provide both recreational hunting and fresh meat for the numerous people working in the whaling industry on the island at the time. In February 2001 fifty-nine reindeer were shipped from South Georgia to the Falkland Islands and taken by lorry to a Falkland Islands Government research station near Goose Green. The aim was to make Falklands-brand reindeer meat – produced and packaged on the islands – a lucrative export as a speciality food, and reduce farmers’ reliance on mutton and wool for an income. Since then, the reindeer herd on South Georgia has been eradicated because with no resident population and therefore no need for meat, they were causing huge environmental damage.
That leaves the reindeer on The Falklands with one unique characteristic. They are the only reindeer in the world that were not contaminated by the radioactive cloud that formed over areas of Europe, including Norway, following the reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986. The radioactive dust found its way into the soil when it rained or snowed, subsequently accumulating in the lichen and fungus that make up the vast majority of the reindeers’ diet.
This has proved to be problematic for the indigenous Sami people who rely on the reindeer for sustenance. Scientists predict that it could be many years before the animals are free of radiation.
So if you fancy roast Reindeer instead of Turkey this Christmas it’s probably worth popping down to the Falklands for the festive occasion. And Rudolph, if you’re reading this, may we suggest you ask Santa to relocate to the South Pole. Oh, but just a minute, maybe it’s because of the radiation that your nose glows red.